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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Elgar and England

Edward William Elgar was born on 2nd June just 150 years ago and, because to a great many in this country he is the quintessence of Englishness, the voice of a lost Edwardian dignity, the epitome of old world tradition and nobility, Empire and Monarchy, the anniversary is celebrated by British orchestras, performers, magazines and radio stations with almost hysterical enthusiasm. Or perhaps not hysterical, for that is not quite the English way; but certainly enthusiasm.

Yet it is surely all rather artificial.

Elgar was certainly the first English composer to draw attention to the possible musical potential of a country unfairly judged in Europe to be without any. The interest in him, especially in Germany (where all nineteenth century musical worth in orchestras, opera houses, music publishers and a great many performers seemed to be centred) was significant. Both he and his music were in tune with a Teutonic temperament that was easily accepted here in England too, for both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were of German descent. It was clear that if there was any enthusiasm in England for music at its most exalted level, it might well be for that which had some spiritual affinity to what was most comfortably German.

Elgar drew attention to English music, but apart from the superb (and perhaps exceptional) clarity of Enigma Variations, he was not particularly English. The real national character in music had to appear through the casting off of the German cloak and this was demonstrated, gradually, by those composers who, like Elgar, were born during the later part of the nineteenth century and began to emerge as distinctive musical voices over the first decade of the twentieth century, a decade that began with Elgar's success with Gerontius -- in Germany -- and ended with his Violin Concerto and Second Symphony -- about the same time as a symphony by Walford Davies made uneasily competent listening.

Granville Bantock, Ethyl Smyth, Charles Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Rutland Boughton, Delius, Coleridge-Taylor and even John Foulds are but a few of the names of composers whose work had also been heard by 1900, and in whose subsequent music there is discernable a more potent Englishness than with Elgar, whose later achievement became more celebrity and image than the creator of music for 20th century England.

Detail from a statue of Edward Elgar in Malvern, Worcestershire, UK. Photo © 2007 Keith Bramich

It is however much easier to call Elgar quintessentially English than to dispute it; we have been persuaded to hear the Malvern Hills in it. But he did rise during a period of fervent patriotism (Pomp and Circumstance 1 and 2; The Banner of St George) under Victoria and Albert's flag and was English in that he was completely committed to his belief in England. Perhaps that is why some still celebrate him here.

Copyright © 29 July 2007 Patric Standford, Wakefield UK


From: Nathaniel Cadle

It would be helpful if Standford could explain to us exactly what he thinks qualifies as the 'real' character of English music. Is it a particular combination of chords? Or a preference for a particular time signature or a particular key? Or is it simply, as Michael Kennedy once remarked in frustration, some sort of 'occult-like quality'?

Curious that Standford would cite Delius as a composer of 'more potent Englishness' than Elgar. Delius himself would certainly be alarmed to hear that.

Finally, one wonders what Standford makes of the fact that Elgar was almost entirely self-trained as a composer. For me, that's always been what distinguishes the 'character' of his music.


From: Kelly Ferjutz

I must say I don't necessarily agree with Patric's opinion on Elgar, but that's what makes the world go around, right? I like Elgar's music very much, and it may well be rather Germanic in origin, but what else could it be, really, at that time in history? Almost everything was German-influenced at that time! Even Victoria and the rest of the Royal Family.

What could possibly be more British-sounding than 'Pomp and Circumstance' -- any of that batch, in fact? I daresay if one were to ask people at a concert (in any country at any time) to name a British composer, the first name mentioned would be that of Elgar.


From: J Vaughan

Yes, it is often said that Elgar's music is essentially Germanic (though the cited Mr Kennedy also hears French influence, notably in Elgar's orchestration), but I admit to still hearing England in a fair amount of his music, even that of Elgar's WONDERFUL gentler, more-introspective sort.

Yet I think of Vaughan Williams, and a reasonable amount of Holst, as quintessentially English as well, and much of that could not be more different from Elgar. And is not an opera such as Britten's Peter Grimes English in its way, along with at least some of his other operas as well?

So 'Englishness' in music, if it does exist (as I would like to think it does), is somewhat broad in scope, but still hopefully recognizable. Yet I would tend to agree with a previous commenter that most of Delius does not sound especially English to me.

Hoping this finds you and your readers well,



From: Christopher Eva

Nothing very 'provocative' here -- just badly written. Does the first sentence [paragraph 4] refer to Elgar or his music -- and since when has 'superb clarity' been a necessary feature of English music? The second sentence [paragraph 4] is rambling and shapeless; why do people write like this about classical music?

The funny thing is that these 'Provocative Thoughts' are identical to the way Elgar was regarded by part of the British musical establishment in the 1920s (when Elgar's major works were performed in half-empty concert halls). In 1924 there was a debate in court circles as to who would succeed Sir Walter Parratt as Master of the King's Music. Sir Fredrick Ponsonby wrote:

'His Majesty is ... inclined to appoint some eminent musician, but the question arises as to who this should be. Sir Edward Elgar has applied for the post and ... it seems difficult to resist his claims. At the same time it is generally thought that Vaughan Williams is the most representative of British Music; Elgar having always adopted German methods.'

(Elgar got the appointment, despite his 'German methods'.)

'The real national character in music', as Patric Standford so glibly puts it, is a complex business, and things have moved on a bit since the 1920s (except for Patric Standford). Anyone interested in the subject should ignore amateurs like Patric Standford and read some of the recent Elgar literature, such as The Cambridge Companion to Elgar (Cambridge University Press, 2004). One of the contributors to that volume, John Butt, comments that 'no music is essentially intrinsic to any nationality: certain traits may become associated with nationhood, as much by the composer as by the audience, but these associations are just as provisional as any other connotations music might hold.'


From: Peter T Daniels

Is an article by the American linguist Robert A Hall Jr noted in the bibliography? In a piece in Gramophone, circa 1960, he argued that Elgar is quintessentially English because his instrumental music reflected the intonation patterns of British English. (I don't believe he ever made similar claims about intonation patterns of French turning up in French music, or of Italian -- his particular specialty -- in Italian music.)


From: John of Aix

While I'd probably agree that the prevailing influence in music at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries was principally German, each national composer, Elgar, Berlioz, Sibelius etc, did their own thing with it. I think that Elgar's Cello Concerto, for instance, is quintessentially English.








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